The number 46 became a rallying cry this summer as state lawmakers put the finishing touches on the budget. That’s because North Carolina ranks 46th in what it pays teachers.
Many people, including the state schools superintendent, argued good teachers would leave the profession or go to neighboring states that pay more if North Carolina didn’t raise teacher salaries. But lawmakers were not swayed. Let’s examine if those fears are warranted.
Five years ago North Carolina was ranked 25th in the nation for average teacher pay. That put it well above neighboring states. Then the recession hit. There were cutbacks and teacher pay pretty much stagnated. Now the state is ranked 46th with an average teacher pay of $46,000. But how does this ranking affect North Carolina’s ability to hold onto good teachers and recruit new ones?
“It’s a bad question essentially,” says Dan Goldhaber, a professor at the University of Washington who studies the effects of teacher pay.
“You need to look at what salary is at different points in a teacher’s career and compare that to what people could make at different points in their career teaching in other states and/or at different points in their career in a non-teaching occupation,” says Goldhaber.
So let’s start with beginning pay for a teacher in North Carolina. The state sets the minimum at $30,800, although most districts supplement salaries. South Carolina and Tennessee are comparable. Salaries in Virginia districts neighboring North Carolina pretty much begin around $34,000.
Like most states, North Carolina uses a teacher pay scale based on years of experience. North Carolina teachers used to get significant bumps in their salary after the third year to encourage them to stay once they had the hang of teaching. But for the past five years teacher salaries have largely remained frozen, save for a one percent across the board pay hike last year.
“A teacher straight out of college with a bachelor’s degree makes $30,800 and the teacher with 5 years of experience and really very proficient at their job, also makes that same amount of $30,800,” says Alexis Schauss, the Director of School Business with the NC Department of Public Instruction.
If the General Assembly decided to end the salary freeze, it would take 15 years to reach $40,000 and 36 years to reach the top of the pay scale at $52,000.
Factor in lawmakers’ decision to eliminate tenure and an automatic pay raise for master’s degrees, and neighboring states start looking more appealing and other professions too. But are teachers actually leaving to teach in other states or to take jobs out of the profession?
Well, you hear of a teacher here and there leaving. But you also hear concerns from many teachers like Andrew Shimko. He’s in his second year at Independence high school in Charlotte. Shimko got a head start on that $40,000 salary. He makes close to that thanks to a $5,000 CMS supplement, one of the highest in the state, and an extra bump for getting his teaching certificate this year. He got that sooner than most teachers since he’s part of an alternative entry program. Shimko says he’s lucky because that makes him one of only a few teachers to get a pay raise.
“I’ve got a lot of friends….We’re all young teachers, we all love what we do, but it’s hard to scrape by when it’s every bill you pay you worry about how you’re going to pay it, especially when there are other jobs out there,” says Shimko.
The state surveys teachers who leave their jobs. But there’s no specific question about whether it’s due to salary. Instead, you can look at responses like “dissatisfied with teaching” or “career change.” The latest data is from 2012. The number of teachers leaving the profession more than doubled to 816 teachers compared to 2010. The number of teachers leaving to teach in other states pretty much held constant during that time.
Schauss says it’s hard to draw conclusions from that. What’s striking to her is a significant decrease in the number of North Carolina teachers with 1-6 years of experience and more than 25.
“We’re seeing over 5,000 less teachers in those beginning years and over 3,000 less teachers in the older years,” says Schauss. “The impact this is going to have is in five years from now when we don’t have those experienced teachers in the middle.”
Some of that could be districts hiring fewer teachers due to tighter budgets, but Schauss says it also shows North Carolina is having a harder time holding on to teachers and attracting new ones. The worry is, down the line, the state could be coping with teacher shortages.
Back to that number 46. You may soon be hearing chants of “47” or “48,” since most teacher salaries will likely stay the same next year. Lawmakers responded to pay concerns giving districts the authority next year to offer up to 25 percent of teachers four-year contracts. They would include $500 raises each year.
It represents a move toward a pay structure based on merit. Many people, including Schauss, see it as a necessary shift to attract and keep good teachers. But she says none of that matters if lawmakers aren’t willing to fund higher salaries in the first place.